March 11, 2009
By: Deshka Foster, NWL Staff
Upon returning home from leading trips at Northwaters a few summers ago, instead of commencing my junior year of college, I packed my backpack and boarded a plane for Nairobi. I had decided to take a leave of absence from Stanford University and volunteer for a small, not-for-profit organization in northern Tanzania. The organization is called Students for International Change and offers HIV/AIDs education, awareness campaigns and testing in rural communities.
The previous winter when in the midst of researching possible abroad opportunities, I had come across the following quotation in a book of poetry:
“I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world.
I may not ever complete the last one, but I give myself to it”.
–Rainer Maria Rilke
I had already checked out the University study-abroad programs, but was not interested because I did not want to do “America in Paris” or “America in Santiago”; to take Stanford classes with a bunch of Stanford kids in a different country. I was rather looking for a meaningful experience that was separate from the American college scene to which I had become accustomed. Rilke’s words speak to this desire, reflecting on a human inclination to explore the world through a service project committed to making it a better place for those who are less fortunate. The effort to create positive change in the world and the experience of leaving behind what is familiar and comfortable, give rise to an opportunity for immense growth and learning.
I chose to do HIV/AIDS work because for as long as I can remember I have known that I wanted to become a doctor and work in international health. This inspiration stems from my belief that medicine is the field through which I will be able to offer the most to the world; caring for struggling abroad communities that lack the resources and expertise for proper healthcare. However, upon coming to Stanford, I quickly discovered that the actual process of becoming a doctor is more selfish than this philanthropic aspiration. I craved an experience that would allow me to get back in touch with my initial inspiration and to experience first hand the things that I had been writing college papers about. I chose to volunteer for Students for International Change because I was impressed by this organization’s commitment to excellence, with a combined focus on prevention and treatment and a very progressive approach to educating rural communities about HIV/AIDS. Excellence is a term that is frequently employed in the Northwaters/Langskib vocabulary. It speaks about the importance of doing things that you find meaningful and especially about caring about the way you do the things that you do.
For the next four months, I lived as a rural Tanzanian and taught about HIV and AIDS at primary and secondary schools, medical clinics and to communities, basically to everyone and anyone who was willing to listen. It was one of the most powerful experiences in my life: eye-widening, saddening, frustrating at times and incredibly rewarding at others. The first village I lived in was about halfway up Mount Meru. We lived in a little cement shack with a family of 11 give or take a few random neighbors, cows, stray dogs, goats and chickens. The eldest brother moved out of his bed in order to let another volunteer and I sleep there and was sleeping in the family’s “duka”, a small shop on the roadside that sells soap, matches, chai and Tanzanian pancakes. Although I had studied a bit of Swahili, it turned out that this family only spoke the local dialect, KiMaasai, making communication a serious challenge.
Every morning we were awakened around six by the eldest sisters, as they hauled buckets of water from the stream in a canyon below. Then we walked about an hour down the dusty dirt road (there are only two paved roads in the whole country of Tanzania) to a primary school. Many of the schools buildings were missing doors and windows and some children could only attend one or two days of class a week depending on their family’s needs. Some days there would be a governmental testing, church events for the community or simply students would not show up, but we would stay there for most of the day and teach whenever we could.
We begin our instruction with basic biology and immunology, then the progression of HIV in the human body, transmission and prevention and finally teach about HIV testing and how to live with and care for people who are HIV+. After five weeks of teaching in the school and community, our students possess accurate knowledge about HIV; small group of them have been trained to be peer-educators and continue educating at the school when we are gone; many of the dukas in the village have started to sell condoms and the people we meet along the road know our names and have taught us to great them in KiMaasai. Although HIV is a complicated health crisis and offering awareness campaigns in one ward of villages at a time will hardly immediately eliminate HIV from sub-Saharan Africa, I believe that our efforts are effective and genuinely excellent. I am incredibly grateful for all of the support I got for this incredible opportunity and will be returning to Tanzania as a volunteer coordinator for Students for International Change this coming summer.